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Locke, Liberty, and the Bible: An Interview with Dr. Joseph Loconte

American Discovery, Vol 2. Issue 1
Locke, Liberty, and the Bible: An Interview with Dr. Joseph LoconteAmerican Discovery, Vol 2. Issue 1

Dr. Joseph Loconte

Dr. Joseph Loconte is a history professor at The King’s College in New York City and an affiliated scholar of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center. He is author of God, Locke, and Liberty (Lexington). Last month, Dr. Loconte lectured on this topic at the Philadelphia Union League in a partnered event with the Discovery Center. We interviewed Dr. Loconte on the relevance of John Locke to faith and liberty in the American experience.

Who was John Locke and why is he important to the American founding and Americans today?

John Locke is really important to understanding the emergence of liberal democracy, natural rights, equality, and freedom in the West. Locke’s political theory is central to that story. He was a 17th-century English philosopher and lived through the turbulent years of England’s Civil War and short-lived republic. Regarding the American founders’ rebellion and republic building, there is arguably no one so influential as Locke. The founders looked to Locke for the right to rebel against political tyranny.

That’s the great contribution of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. Locke lays out a natural law foundation, a moral-political rationale for when a people have the right under heaven to rebel against tyrannical government. If a government tramples over your natural rights – the right to life, liberty, and property – a people have a natural right, even an obligation, to cast off those oppressors. That’s a hugely important moral contribution to America’s founding. Secondly, in Locke the founders saw the idea of religious freedom, the idea of the rights of conscience, and ultimately the institutional separation between church and state – very Lockean concepts.

And it is really important to make clear that the way the founders understood Locke in these matters was not to marginalize the influence of the Bible or Christianity from public life at all. The point of Locke’s formula for the separation between church and state, was to create as much civic space as possible for religious belief and religiously informed consciences to function and flourish without the repressive interfering hand of the state.

Let truth find its way in the marketplace of ideas is a very Lockean idea, and one that was embraced by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

Locke knew and studied the Bible probably more than most of the men and women who graduate from seminaries today.
Joe Loconte

John Locke lived in a time that some historians have called “the Biblical Century,” because of the Good Book’s pervasive influence on European culture and politics. Was John Locke a Bible reader?

Not only was he a Bible reader, I think Locke knew and studied the Bible probably more than most of the men and women who graduate from seminaries today. I’ll just offer one little piece of evidence. You can see throughout his writings his familiarity with the Bible, with biblical idioms, they’re all over his writings both published and unpublished. Locke actually produced A Common-place-book to the Holy Bible.

It doesn’t get a lot of attention from scholars. It’s his own translation of the Greek New Testament into English with personal commentary and glosses on the scriptural text. He clearly regards the Bible as a divinely inspired book, as the highest authority in any person’s life. Unlike Thomas Jefferson who’s chopped up and cut up various portions of the New Testament creating the Jefferson Bible, Locke offers really thoughtful commentary on the Bible.

Here are just a few lines from his opening on the authority of the Scripture:  He says “notwithstanding therefore the law written on our hearts, we shall never come to the full knowledge of that good and acceptable and perfect will of God which is to direct us in this life except by his word which he has in due time manifested to us so we can be fully instructed in all things belonging unto our peace and salvation of our souls.” So clearly, Locke sees the Bible as the key to the salvation of our souls.

So what is Locke’s understanding about the relationship of faith and liberty? Does he see faith and liberty as allies or opponents? Or as something else?

Locke lived in a period when the religious beliefs (whether Catholic or Protestant) seemed to be the adversaries to political freedom, to natural rights and equality, and so he has some very tough words against the religious establishment, and against religious belief that is militant, oppressive and intolerant.

I think Locke’s contribution is to say clearly that authentic religious belief which must be modeled on the life and teachings of Jesus, can and must be an ally to political freedom, to religious freedom, to civic freedom. One of his great contributions was to imagine a political society where faith and liberty are mutually supportive values – that society became America.

To what extent did Locke’s reading of the Bible inform his political philosophy about the nature of government?

The first of his Two Treatises of Government is a biblical, almost verse by verse refutation of the patriarchal political absolutism represented by Robert Filmer. Filmer tried to offer a Bible-based rationale for political absolutism and Locke’s First Treatise is an exacting examination of Scripture to show that there is simply no basis for this absolutism. So, Locke knows his Bible thoroughly. That’s the point of the First Treatise. It’s to show that you can’t use the Bible to justify authoritarian absolute rule. And so, in the Second Treatise, after having done this, Locke lays out natural rights, natural law argument as the basis for consensual government. That’s a clear example.

The other example is Locke’s Letter on Toleration. He begins the letter by invoking the teachings and toleration of Jesus as the model for toleration, for charity, for the willingness to tolerate differences of opinion. He goes back again and again to the example of Christ and the teachings of the apostles. So it’s pretty clear to me that Locke has a well formed biblical anthropology. His view of the human person is grounded in his understanding of the Scriptures, and when he wants to make a moral argument for religious toleration, he goes immediately to the person of Jesus.

He understands his audience so he’s certainly trying to appeal to a biblically literate audience, but you also can see from his private correspondence that he is firmly committed to the teachings of the Bible, to the teachings of Christ as his guide through life. I think one of Locke’s greatest contributions is his ability to bring together in his writings like the Two Treatises of Government and particularly his Letter on Toleration, a combination of natural rights, natural law arguments, historical arguments, and biblical arguments.

It’s the marriage if you will, of political liberalism, government by consent of the governed with the Golden Rule and with the teachings of Christ. For his day, Locke offers a biblically radical reinterpretation of the life and teachings of Jesus. He brings these things together with singular focus that has a transformative effect on the political societies of Great Britain and ultimately the United States.

Locke offers a biblically radical reinterpretation of the life and teachings of Jesus.
Joe Loconte

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